A sandstone statue looted from the Koh Ker area depicting Skanda – the war god of Hindu mythology – riding on a peacock is set to return to Cambodia from the US, according to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts on July 16.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Department of Homeland Security have filed a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the antique, the ministry said.

The attorney’s office on July 15 said the owner of “Skanda on a Peacock” had “voluntarily relinquished possession of the statue to the custody of HSI [Homeland Security Investigations]”, the principal investigative arm of the department.

“The statue was stolen from the Prasat Krachap temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia, and sold by antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford into the international art market.

“From 928 to 944AD, Koh Ker was the capital of the ancient Khmer empire in Cambodia. The Cambodian state under King Jayavarman IV constructed a vast complex of sacred monuments at Koh Ker, including the Prasat Krachap temple and its statuary,” it said.

Manhattan US Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “’Skanda on a Peacock’ is a work of great historical, religious and artistic significance to the people of Cambodia. With this action, we reaffirm our commitment to ending the sale of illegally trafficked antiquities in the United States, and begin the process of returning Skanda on a Peacock to its rightful home.”

The culture ministry underlined that Koh Ker had been the target of large-scale looting during times of war and unrest.

Culture minister Phoeung Sackona described the statue as an example of the awe-inspiring creativity of the Khmer people of the era.

She noted that images of the Hindu god of war were rare in Khmer art, but were a prominent component in Krachap temple decoration.

“The return of this statue confirms Cambodia’s commitment to find and bring back the souls of our ancestors, who left their homeland many years ago during times of war,” Sackona said.

She stressed that the Kingdom is extremely elated at the uplifting reality that a rising number of its illegally-exported valuable cultural belongings are finally finding their way back home.

The "Skanda on a Peacock" statue was likely taken from the antechamber of the Krachap temple, the same spot as the "Shiva and Skanda" sculpture that will also be returned soon, the minister claimed.

Some Sanskrit epics indicate that Skanda was the first-born son of Shiva, who featured heavily in art produced during the Koh Ker dynasty.

Sackona said: “The return of these sculptures and a slew of new [archaeological] discoveries have given the Cambodian people and the world a deeper understanding of ancient Khmer culture and history.”

She appreciated Edenbridge Asia founder Bradley J Gordon and Heinberg Barr LLP’s Steve Heimberg, saying their years-long assistance has been of indispensable value.

The two law veterans have worked hand-in-hand with Cambodian officials and other partners for years on negotiations, locating and bringing back the Kingdom’s cultural assets, and pinpointing their original locations, she said.

“We are incredibly proud of the partnership between our two countries’ governments, to reinforce the protection of Cambodian cultural heritage and serve the ultimate interest of all mankind, especially future generations of Cambodians, who will have the opportunity to embrace the value of these treasures, which are paramount emblems of cultural identity of the nation and its ancestors,” the minister said.

Cambodia and the US government have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work together on returning stolen artefacts back to the Kingdom, signed in 2003 and last renewed in 2018, according to the attorney’s office.

The office noted that Cambodian cultural experts believe that the face of the Skanda on the statue could be a portrait of a royal family member, such as Harshavarman II, the son of King Jayavarman IV.

It recounted: “During the civil conflicts of late 20th century, statues and other artefacts were stolen from Koh Ker and entered the international art market through an organised looting network.

“Local teams of looters would first remove the statues from the original location at Koh Ker. The statues would then be transported to the Cambodia-Thailand border, and transferred to brokers, who would in turn transport them to dealers in Khmer artefacts located in Thailand, particularly Bangkok.

“These dealers would sell the artefacts to local or international customers, who would either retain the pieces or sell them on the international art market,” it added.

It said the Skanda sculpture and other statues were pilfered from Krachap temple in or about 1997 by a former Khmer Rouge member leading a group of looters.

The team then moved the Skanda statue “by oxcart to the house of a broker near the Thai border … aware that the broker sold antiquities to a foreign national called ‘Sia Ford’ – the British-Thai antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford, aka ‘Pakpong Kriangsak’”, the office said, noting that “Sia” means “lord” in Thai.

“In 2019, Latchford was charged by the office with wire fraud conspiracy and other crimes related to a many-year scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities on the international art market, primarily by creating false provenance documents and falsifying invoices and shipping documents. The indictment was ultimately dismissed due to the death of Latchford.

“On or about April 10, 2000, Latchford sold Skanda on a Peacock and, thereafter, it was imported into the United States. After the most recent owner was contacted by the United States regarding Skanda on a Peacock, the owner agreed to relinquish possession of the statue and to waive all claims of right, title, and interest in it,” the office added.

It noted that the matter was being handled by its Laundering and International Criminal Enterprises Unit, and that Assistant US Attorney Jessica Feinstein was in charge of the case.